If you had entered a grocery store several decades ago and inquired about foods that were gluten-free, you would have received nothing but a quizzical look in return. Today, however, the gluten-free food industry is thriving – thanks to a surging awareness of this food component that, for some, can cause medical problems if consumed.
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Although gluten is something that is newly entering people’s consciousness, it’s hardly a new food. In fact, gluten has been around as long as wheat. If you’re thinking of going gluten-free, educate yourself on gluten and the gluten-free lifestyle prior to taking the leap.
1. What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in grains including wheat, barley and rye. This protein’s function is to hold food together. When the plant is developing, gluten serves as a food to the plant embryo.
2. Why Go Gluten-Free?
Gluten isn’t necessarily bad. But, for some people, consuming gluten can lead to a host of medical problems.
Individuals with celiac disease generally cannot tolerate gluten. When people with this disease eat gluten, they experience inflammation in their small intestines, which can lead to a host of digestive problems.
This disease is probably more common than you think. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in every 141 people in the U.S. has celiac disease. The degree to which gluten will negatively impact someone with celiac disease depends on the severity of their disease.
Gluten can also cause problems for some people who don’t have celiac disease. These individuals are said to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This is also sometimes referred to as gluten intolerance. Researchers estimate that 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, reported by BeyondCeliac.org.
These individuals often experience negative side effects following the consumption of a gluten-containing food. These side effects often include, but are not limited to, digestive issues.
3. How Hard Is It To Eat Gluten-Free?
Because gluten is found in any food containing a grain – that isn’t processed to be gluten-free – switching to this diet can be quite difficult at first. The primary challenge you will face when going gluten-free is dedicating more conscious thought to what you put into your mouth.
Thanks to the growing number of people who are going gluten-free, there are lots more gluten-free options today than there were a decade ago. While you may have to visit a specialty section in the grocery store, you will most likely be able to find a host of gluten-free alternatives to traditional gluten-rich favorites, including pastas and breads.
4. What Foods Can You Eat?
Most foods that don’t contain grain are naturally gluten-free. This makes filling your cart with things you can eat easier than you may have initially suspected.
Eggs are a naturally gluten-free food, for example. Meat is gluten-free as well, as long as you don’t select a meat that is breaded or battered. Both fruits and vegetables are all gluten-free, so spend plenty of time in the produce department. Additionally, most dairy products are gluten-free.
With this many gluten-free options at your disposal, you’ll likely have few issues creating a well-rounded gluten-free menu.
5. What Foods Can’t You Eat?
The only foods that are always off limits are those that contain grains – and haven’t been processed to be gluten-free. Anything with traditional wheat, rye or barley is rich in gluten.
As you make your switch, spend some time acquainting yourself with foods in which these grains are hidden. Malt vinegar, for example, may seem a harmless condiment but, in many cases, it has gluten, as malt flavoring is usually made of barley.
6. Are There Exceptions?
Because so many people are trying to go gluten-free, there are lots of foods that previously only came in gluten-rich versions that are now available gluten-free. When you’re shopping, look for the gluten-free label on beer, bread, cereals, cookies, pastas and salad dressings.
Unless they are specifically labeled as gluten-free, many of these foods will contain gluten. With a careful eye, however, you can avoid gluten and still enjoy some of your old favorites.
7. What About When I Go Out To Eat?
Just as the shelves are now fuller of gluten-free products, many restaurants offer gluten-free dishes on their menu. If you plan to go out to eat, review the menu online prior to your trip and see if they have any items marked gluten-free. If they don’t, calling the restaurant is advisable.
When you arrive at the restaurant, tell your server of your gluten sensitivity. Often, cross-contamination can occur in restaurant kitchens. By informing your server of your sensitivity, you can increase the likelihood that the kitchen staff works to specifically avoid this, limiting your risk of accidental gluten consumption.
8. What Are The Dangers?
Going gluten-free generally poses no risk, whether you have to go gluten-free for medical reasons or you just choose to do so. As with any change in your diet, however, you have to be careful to ensure that you get enough of the essential nutrients that should fill any balanced diet.
When you stop eating foods with gluten, you might inadvertently miss out on important dietary components, including iron, niacin, folate and fiber.
If, after switching to your gluten-free diet, you notice any ill-effects, contact your doctor or a nutritionist. By working with this professional, you can audit your diet and see where you might be missing out on key vitamins and minerals.
9. What Happens If You Accidentally Eat Gluten?
The answer to this question depends substantially on whether or not you have celiac disease. If you do have celiac disease, you will probably experience abdominal pain and diarrhea following accidental gluten consumption.
Generally, there is nothing that can be done to mitigate these symptoms; however, they will dissipate on their own as the gluten leaves your system. If you experience severe abdominal pain, you can use over-the-counter pain remedies to ease your symptoms. If symptoms persist or become very severe, seek medical attention.
Some people who have celiac disease do not experience any ill-effects when they eat gluten. For these individuals, it can easily seem that going gluten-free wasn’t necessary in the first place. It’s important to remember, however, that just because you don’t experience symptoms, it doesn’t mean that the gluten is not negatively impacting your small intestines.
Following this accidental consumption, return to your gluten-free diet unless advised otherwise by your doctor.
If your reason for not eating gluten is non-celiac gluten sensitivity, your body will likely respond to the gluten you accidentally consumed in the same way it was responding to gluten before you modified your diet. In some instances, your response may be more severe, as your body is no longer used to gluten since you have so long been without it.
As with individuals with celiac disease, your only option is to wait out the discomfort.